In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
blu-ray REVIEW – ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. – ****
Directed by Don Chaffey. Starring John Richardson, Raquel Welch, Martine Beswick, Robert Brown, Percy Herbert. UK, Fantasy, 100 mins, cert PG.
Released on BluRay and DVD Double Play in the UK by StudioCanal on 24th October, 2016.
Well, it's great. While this is of Hammer's most spectacular oddities and one of their most famous non-horror titles, it might lose historical points for shamelessly dropping then long-extinct dinosaurs into the petty squabbles of Early Man, but then it wins all those points back again for being as effective as it is with no actual dialogue beyond "ug". (For many of us this was probably our first film not in English and without subtitles.) The main result of having to do the entire film in wordless grunts and mime is a pleasing level of facial overacting that's pitched at just the right level: enough to convey what's going on without descending into eye-rolling ham.
Back when the Earth was a young world, there were two tribes existing close by but unaware of each other. The Rock People are violent, graceless savages (most of whom look like the castaway from Monty Python's Flying Circus) while the Shell People are relatively civilised: they've invented sewing, art and personal grooming. Turak (John Richardson) is banished from the Rock People - his brother Sakana (Percy Herbert) wants to be chief - and he wanders off into the desert. After encounters with apemen, giant lizards and (thankfully very briefly) a giant spider he chances upon the women of the Shell People, in particular Loana (Raquel Welch in the iconic doeskin bikini)....
It's beautiful to look at - the Blu is a 4K restoration and as good as you'll ever see it, even a pristine 35mm print - with the Lanzarote and Tenerife locations genuinely conveying the look and feel of a million years ago. Sure the Ray Harryhausen monster work looks a little creaky now, but that's our fault: audiences are so much more sophisticated these days and it's hard to go back before 1993 when the first JURASSIC PARK movie brought T-Rexes and stegosauruses to life in a way that even the best stop-motion simply couldn't. Even so, they are, as ever, brilliantly integrated into the scenes of the humans that were filmed months previously. There's a Creation Of The World opening that almost looks like the Stargate sequence from 2001, a snarling catfight between Welch and her Rock Tribe opposite number Martine Beswick, and a thrilling volcano/earthquake finale.
For whatever reason I hadn't seen ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. for decades, since it showed up at some point on the BBC and I'd forgotten just how enjoyable it is. Even though it's now half a century old it's so much more fun than, say, Emmerich's silly but empty 10,000 BC. The Blu, which appears to be the complete 100-minute version (some scenes were apparently cut from the American release), is sadly light on extras except for a gallery and some reminiscences from Welch and Beswick that total less than half an hour. But the film is the main attraction and it's definitely worth seeing.